The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues
DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue

Listening In: The Art of Intuitive Engineering

Kenny Wolleson. Photo: Mae Moreno.

Welcome to the Republic of Užupis (pronounced oo-zhoo-piece.) Among the 41 articles of its constitution are Number 3, Everyone has the right to die, but this this is not an obligation; Number 15, Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation, and best of all; Number 21 (from the original Lithuanian): Everyone has the right to realize their own negligibility and magnificence. It concludes with an oddly inspiring triumvirate, Numbers 39–41: Do not defeat. Do not fight back. Do not surrender.

This enlightened republic is, in fact, a neighborhood located within the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Užupis declared itself an independent entity in 1998, with its own flag, passport stamp, coat of arms, and that freewheeling constitution. It is separated from the Old Town by the Vilnia River, as per the poetic first article: Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.

Užupis (the name means “beyond the other side of the river”) is a centuries-old part of a city that is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Napoleon called Vilnius “Jerusalem of the North.” The area had a large Jewish population, until most of its residents were killed in the Holocaust. After a period of neglect, it again began to draw appreciation for the beauty of its winding streets, and has been substantially redeveloped in recent decades. And then, at the end of the 20th century, along came this absurdist republic, its utopian zeal leavened by an Eastern European sense of irony and resignation. The world doesn’t really change, it seems to say, but we are going to make the most of it. Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde gadabout and prominent Lithuanian, was, not surprisingly, one of its founding ambassadors.

Užupis is also the name of a band led by American drummer and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, who found inspiration in the place. The band was planning to come together in order to play the Vilnius Jazz Festival, one of the best in Europe, in October, but the pandemic prevented the group from uniting there. The longtime artistic director, Antanas Gustys, found a creative solution. Wollesen remembers,

He said, ‘Listen, we’ll pay you to go into a really good studio and record, so that it has great sound.’ We went to a studio and recorded like it was a gig, and it has a real live spirit to it. That gave us the material for our record. We also filmed some stuff in the studio. Everybody in the group knows how to make little movies. So we put all these films together and chopped it up. And it was cut together as this movie that was about an hour long. The finished piece was presented at the festival in a theater. It helps that everything isn’t totally shut down over there, and you can still go to a theater in kind of a normal way. So this wasn’t just a livestream or some kind of cell phone camera thing.

(This echoed the observation that Olivier Conan, owner of Barbès, said to me recently: that for the presentation of live music to work remotely, the visual side has to be a true creative complement to the aural one. Otherwise, it’s an uninspiring mismatch.)

Wollesen seems to embody the Užupian character in his openness to artistic expression as a part of everyday life. One of his many projects is serving as leader of the marching band Kenny Wollesen & The Himalayas,

I wanted to have a marching band where anybody could play. There’s no audition and nothing you have to learn. You can just show up and play. There’s a lot of diversity in the sound and in people’s abilities. I really love that. I think it’s great because surprising things happen. Sometimes it’s like nobody really knows what is going on, there’s a lot of confusion and people play the wrong notes or whatever. And then there’s always a moment where it all kind of coalesces, and everybody’s on the same page. You feel it happening all around you.

He recently played on behalf of Laurie Anderson’s RuckUS in a voter participation event with the group, marching from the New York Public Library down to Washington Square Park,

It’s interesting to see how people react to this weird marching band. You play for people that would never come to see you in any other circumstance. And you see how music affects everyone. A lot of friendly smiles, people clapping and hanging out. Then a lot of times people do become part of the band. It’s just a random gathering of people at a certain juncture of time, and for that moment it becomes like a kind of collective.

A highly respected percussionist, Wollesen is an ace player in avant-garde and popular contexts, someone who worked constantly in New York and toured until the pandemic hit. One of Wollesen’s most regular collaborators over the years has been composer John Zorn:

He’s one of those guys who just makes you play way better. He pushes you, he makes you rise up and really go for it. You’ve got to be 100 percent present, you can’t phone it in at all. I’m a much better musician because he’s been in my life.

Another is guitarist Bill Frissell:

He has such an unmistakable sound, so the music always becomes him. As a leader, he doesn’t say much at all, he doesn’t overly direct you. But he’s always listening to everything that you’re doing, as well as everything else that’s going on around him, in the band and in the audience. He’s never forcing anything, but it all gets reflected.

Now, “all my gigs got cancelled.” Along with recording and wondering about what comes next for live music, he is returning to making instruments, something he first did through his initiative Wollesonic. “I have hundreds of instruments that I’ve built. Very few are based on pitch; some are more like sound effects. Some interact with air, some interact with light to change sound. A lot of them have cranks on them, kind of like a music box.” But he doesn’t see creating them as being a scientific venture: “I have no patience at all for measuring. It’s more of an intuitive approach. I just like to figure things out. Anyway I’m a percussionist, so it all becomes useful in my palette.”

Another expansion of his approach is his work with ceramicist Julia Elsas. She created an installation at the Cooler Gallery, near the Navy Yard, of a piece called “Chime Choir,” which consists of more than 1,200 instruments, on which he will perform: “In terms of pitch, they’re not designed along a scale. Everything is microtonal. But I enjoy things when they’re not really in sync with each other. Whether they’re in tune or not, they’re in tune in another way: They all come from mud.” Preceding his performance at the gallery is someone working with another material entirely: “There’s a tree outside the space at the Cooler, and that is somehow going to be made to generate music.” So the opening act is a tree? “Yeah, it’s a good thing it’s not the other way around.”


Scott Gutterman

Scott Gutterman has written about art and music for Artforum, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, and other publications. His most recent book is Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, 2015). He is deputy director of Neue Galerie New York and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues